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Author Topic: The Tyson Valley Area, Peace and War, St Louis, MO: Part Two  (Read 2441 times)
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« on: March 31, 2012, 09:37:31 PM »

The Tyson Valley has an interesting past, which has shaped the face of the area to this day.  Prior to changes made by white men, Indians found very high quality chert in the area.  This chert and chert from the nearby Crescent Hills was traded over a wide area and used to make arrowheads.  As whites arrived in the area between 1700 and the early 1800’s, small farms sprang up in the area.  During the 1800’s, the area was quarried for limestone and timber was harvested from the upland areas.  Much of the white oak timber ended up at a wood barrel and stave (pipe) plant in nearby Pacific, MO.

The area now serving as Washington University’s Tyson Research Center was once home to the town of Mincke (also incorrectly known as Minke), which was a limestone mining/quarrying company town for the Hunkins-Willis Company.  A large underground quarry, much like Cobb’s Cavern at Rockwoods Reservation but somewhat larger, was created to mine the Kimmswick Formation, a high calcium limestone.  This limestone was ideal for the making of lime, which was kilned on the site.  The mine operated for fifty years from 1877 to 1927 until the lease expired and was not renewed by Henry Mincke, the mine owner.  At this time, the town of Mincke became a ghost town.  During the town’s existence, the nearby Tyson Train Station served to connect the town to the rest of the world.  The U.S. Government used the quarry cavern during World War II and the Korean War as a vehicle ‘garage’ and storage area.  Today, the old cavern still exists but the town is mostly gone.  All that remains are the foundations of the buildings, which included some onsite lime kilns.

In 1941, the Federal Government initiated proceedings to condemn the land of four property owners in the area through eminent domain.  The major landowners included the Minckes and the Rankens, a wealthy family from Europe who also started Ranken Technical College in St. Louis.  In all, 2,620 acres were bought in order to prepare for World War II.  The U.S. Government turned the Tyson Valley into a powder dump (ammunition storage area) for the St. Louis Ordnance Plant and used the land to test fire ammunition.  A fence, sewage system, 21 miles of all weather roads, 4 firing ranges, 52 igloo style concrete bunkers, 10 vaults to store PETN (a powerful high explosive), 4 TNT magazines, 3 chemical warehouses, and 80 other buildings were constructed on the site.In 1947, World War II was over and the U.S. Government no longer saw a need for the land and offered to sell all 2,620 acres.  St. Louis County soon purchased the land with the intention of creating a natural park.  During July of 1948, Tyson Valley Park was formally dedicated.  This large park was turned into a wildlife refuge and natural preserve for all to enjoy.  A miniature train, some deer, a herd of elk, and a herd of buffalo were soon introduced in Tyson Valley Park.  Ten buffalo were brought in from a wildlife refuge in Oklahoma, twenty elk were brought in from Yellowstone National Park, and fifteen white-tailed deer were donated by August A. Busch.  These deer came from his own herd at Grant’s Farm. In 1949, St. Louis County leased six of the concrete explosives storage igloos on the park to commercial mushroom farm.  The dark, cool conditions of these structures were ideal for mushroom cultivation.

Tyson Valley Park was short-lived.  In 1951, the Korean War was being fought and the U.S. Government decided to re-acquire Tyson Valley Park for military purposes.  At first, the government was going to make lease payments on most of the park with the intention of returning the land to St. Louis County after the war ended.  A 240-acre part of the park located outside of the government use area was kept open by constructing a new road into the area.  This area became West Tyson County Park.  In 1954, the government decided to purchase the entire leased area outright and not lease the land from the county.St. Louis County offered to give all the animals in Tyson Valley away but had few takers.  The buffalo were captured and taken to the Rapid City, SD Zoo while the elk and deer were left to roam the park.  After a bull elk rammed and damaged an Army truck during rutting season, the animals were considered a hazard and nuisance.  Due to this problem, and the fact that there wasn’t enough funding to adequately feed the elk during the winter months, an Army officer ordered all the elk to be hunted down and killed.  Their meat was to be donated to local food pantries.  All the elk were rounded up into a clearing and shot, or so it was thought.

In 1961, the U.S. Government declared the property surplus and put it up for sale.  Although there were no legal stipulations requiring that St. Louis County be offered the first priority to repurchase the land, the county was given the first option to buy the land.  Washington University was also interested in buying land in the Tyson Valley.  The university wanted as much land as possible to conduct biological and medical research for their various schools.  In 1963, the government gave Washington University around 2,000 acres of property with the stipulation that research be conducted on the land for 20 years.  This plan left West Tyson County Park intact.

St. Louis County repurchased 405 acres of the easternmost part of the Tyson area in 1963 to re-establish Tyson Valley Park.  This was made possible after the government sold the land for half its accessed value.  Workers in the area soon noticed large animal tracks and it was rumored that a cow or other large animal was loose in the park.  One morning, a park worker sighted a full-grown bull elk standing seven feet tall.  It was obvious that one elk somehow survived being exterminated.  The elk was either hiding at the time of the roundup or was a baby and mistaken for a deer.  The elk, called the “Lone Elk”, had survived ten years eating vegetation within the Army’s reserve.  This sighting was the first ever by humans.

At the same time, the county was busy constructing a chain-link fence between the park and Washington University’s Tyson Research Center.  The park Superintendent, Wayne Kennedy, ordered that a gap be left in the fence until the elk was on the park side of the fence.  Kennedy told the park Supervisor, Gene McGillis, to oversee this task.  McGillis was an American Indian and familiar with tracking animals.  He dumped a truckload of sand at the gap in the fence and waited a few days.  When a set of elk tracks was seen entering the park with none leaving, McGillis called Kennedy to have the gap in the fence closed.  The gap was closed when Kennedy spotted the elk in the park from a helicopter.

St. Louis County originally planned to turn the hilly park into a winter recreation area with ski slopes, sled and toboggan tracks, camping, and an archery range.  Once the elk was in the park, it was decided that the area be used for hiking and picnicking, activities more friendly for an elk.  Soon the park was re-named to Lone Elk.  The public became involved and students from elementary schools in the Rockwood School District collectively donated $300 to transport more elk from Yellowstone National Park.  Students were encouraged to bring dimes to school to help the cause.  Any student contributing a dime or more earned a certificate for a share of “Elk Stock.”  The truckload of elk stopped at Ellisville Elementary and was viewed by exited students.  The Fred Weber Corporation donated a $50,000 dam to build a lake within the park.  The elk story even gained enough national attention for Walter Cronkite to cover the event.

Fred Weber drove himself and McGillis to Yellowstone in Weber’s grain truck and loaded up six elk.  The six elk consisted of five cows and one bull just in case the elk at the park wasn’t male.  When the new elk were released, the Lone Elk arrived within 20 minutes.  Offspring of the elk have been present at the park ever since.  A year or two after the new elk were brought in, a large male elk was found dead in the park.  The Lone Elk had died of old age but park workers are sure that he helped produce some of the young elk born in the park.  His antlers and skull were displayed at the Daniel Boone branch of the St. Louis County Library for a month or so after his death.  After this, they were returned to the county and have since disappeared.

Buffalo from an Oklahoma ranch and Barbados Sheep were added to the park soon after it opened.  The sheep were striking in appearance, with the males having curved ram horns.  These animals were removed from the park during the early 1980’s because they were non-native to the area and very dirty and foul smelling.

To this day, Lone Elk County Park and its wildlife still attracts visitors.  The whole area is a blend of old and new.  Some of the facilities present in the park are leftover from the area’s use as an ammunition storage and testing ground and evidence of prehistoric and historic mining/quarrying is still present.  Old bunkers are now used as food storage and feeding areas for the animals.  Concrete walls and foundations from other old buildings can be seen throughout the area.

There has been recent concern that Washington University might sell its research center since its 20 years of required research is now completed.  St. Louis County is willing to buy the land back to create a park to join Lone Elk and West Tyson.  Others are worried that a housing developer might get a hold of the land and build a subdivision.  The university has stated that it is committed to the research center and does not want to sell the land.  Washington University has stated that it would probably donate the land to St. Louis County if its research center were ever closed.

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins

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